July 10, 1991 David M. died in late June, surrounded by people who loved him and with everything taken care of. “He was very organized,” as somebody pointed out. He left some money for his friends to have a farewell affair. He helped plan it, in fact, specifying the caterer, the format and the setting — a conference room at UCSF’s Millberry Union (with the Golden Gate in the distance; but in more immediate view).
It was in another wing of this building that Dave worked for five years. And for three of those years I worked down the hall from him. He had a ready smile and a lively, mischievous twinkle in his one good eye. He was from Brooklyn, a songwriter, a gossip. Our main topics of conversation were drugs, office politics, movies, his latest CD purchases, Higher Powers, New York and San Francisco, women, men, friendship vs. love, the relationship, the possibilities, the exes, the kids, Barbra Streisand, our health… The usual stuff.
We each had a windowless office. He kept his fairly dark and I can still see him in the gray Macintosh light —talk about ghostly glows— as he entered numbers into an Excel “endless spreadsheet.” One time I couldn’t help but ask: “If music is your first love, if you’ve got music in your soul, how can you do this damn bookeeping all day?” He looked at me like I was outa my mind and said, “Are you kidding? They’re the same… Math!” He meant it absolutely. He was one of those people who found a measure of fulfillment in balancing the books. I felt glad for him when he told me; it meant he enjoyed his work.
The party had its factions, naturally —people who had known Dave from different phases of his life. There were the gay male friends (not that many of them left). The straight co-workers. The gay male co-workers. The friends —mostly women, most of them gay, but including a few straight women dancing with sisters. And friends from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, class of 1970. The groups overlapped and mingled, noshing on the catered finger foods and looking at some pictures of David over the years.
After a while a black woman, about 60, came forward and said something about Dave “expanding” instead of dying. I wondered whether he had written the text and was making a last sexual joke. Probably not. This woman was a no-nonsense person. She explained how Dave had come into her life: her daughter had met him at Erasmus and brought him home one day. “I was one of those moms who had four children but who actually had 40 children,” she recalled. “And Dave became one of them.”
Then her daughter came forward —Judy C., a large, calm-looking woman approaching 40. She also told the story of the day she first brought Dave to her house: “David never invited anybody to his house. Until one day I invited him to my house. When he got there he just kept walking around staring with this expression on his face (great amazement). Staring all around, just like this (total, complete amazement). Finally he said: ‘You’re poor! You guys are poor!
“Now I didn’t think we were poor. I knew we didn’t have as much material things as some, but we were better off than some others. But I knew what he meant.
“It was a great relief to him, seeing we were poor, because he’d been ashamed to invite anybody over to his house because they were poor, too.”
Judy described how in recent months she had helped Dave record some of his songs. He rallied nightly and laid down the vocal tracks, with just a guitar accompaniment. Judy intends to make a CD out of the material. She played a few of them on tape for us: “In Buena Vista, striking matches in the wind…” And a haunting tune about believing in ghosts. For sure the popularity of the movie “Ghost” has something to do with this AIDS epidemic. Why are 39-year old men who look like Patrick Swayze dying nowadays? Dave didn’t look like Patrick Swayze, but he was cute. Slight, lithe, sandy-haired and kind of foxy…
Three or four friends came forward and described the role he had played in their life. You could always count on him for honest feedback, whether you wanted it or not….To a young woman he had shown fatherly affection… Judy and her singing partner, Jacqué, sang two of Dave’s favorites from their reggae repertoire. He had always spoken with great pride about their success on the women’s music circuit. Jacqué played a percussion instrument and moved in an understated, precise way. Then a d.j. played some music and people danced. That was Dave’s last instruction to us: dance!
Everybody who works down the hall has a far-out story, but Dave’s was more far out than most. Even after he knew he was HIV positive, he had a hard time giving up pot. (His drugs of choice had been Quaaludes and coke.) At one point he joined a program that helped people quit. It wasn’t a 12-step program, but one of those private operations that appropriate 12-step principles, add a twist and then charge you to attend. This program required you to write a short autobiography. Dave really got into it. Here it is.
The Autobiography of David M.
I was born the first of nine children on September l, 1951 in Brooklyn, New York. The first four years of my life were unusual. My earliest memories include:
My brother Jeffrey and my sister Carol Ann being given away to strange people in a train station. They were in fact sold.
Two other children born after them were taken away when they didn’t move or cry anymore. They in fact died. I never asked how.
My father had a girl friend, Rose, who lived in New Jersey on a farm. He would take me to visit her. Once when I was about three years old Rose’s brother took me to the outhouse and pulled out his cock, He raped me while I looked out the outhouse window at the geese and chickens. To this day I am afraid of birds.
My father was in the Marines then and it seemed he would always come home just long enough to discipline us. One particulaly brutal beating my mother called “The Thirteenth Avenue.” It was refered to as a threat and measure of beatings to come. My mother would say stuff to me like “Keep it up and when your father get’s home he’s gonna give you a Thirteenth Ave.” and “The only reason we never sold you was because you were the first born.” Even then I hated my legacy.
My father’s mother eventually caught on to what was going on and she sued my parents for custody on grounds of sexual and physical abuse and neglect. The courts first placed me in various shelters and eventually at the age of four granted my grandmother custody. My grandmother, Roslyn Epstein, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with her second husband, Sam, and her daughter Muriel, who had severe cerebal palsy. Muriel could not walk, talk, or sit up. She stayed in a huge hospital bed in the living room and grew to young womanhood there. My grandfather when left alone with me pretending to be asleep in the bedroom would climb into the hospital bed and molest his stepdaughter. We later found out that he also had been to bed with my mother. My grandmother always refered to me as her favorite grandchild and my time living with her was comparatively sane. My favorite passtimes were playing with a huge marble collection, watching musicals over and over again on Million Dollar Movie, and making up my own little songs. When company would come over I would sing my songs for them and do a make-believe show and dance. They would throw loose change at me.
At age nine after years of court battles the Judge placed me first in the Bronx Hebrew Children’s home and then gave me back to my parents. For the next 10 years my father, a Jew in denial of his heritage, subjected my mother, my three sisters, my brother and I to Nazi-inspired, sex games, abuse and torture. These hellish rituals would occur frequently, at any time of the day or night. They were precipitated without provocation, or by something trivial like a hamburger not being cooked well done enough, or by losing or failing to perform some contrived bizzare sexual game or task. One such task he devised was what he would call, “doing his back.” My father would lay face down on the bed, naked from the waist up and my mother and each child in turn would run their fingertips a predetermined number of times very lightly back and forth and up and down his back. The goal was not to have any moisture or sweat on your fingers so that the motion would be slick and titillating. The slightest deviation in finger pressure or failure to go all the way down beyond the waistline would result in rounds of punishment for all. On the more formal nights each of us received a prescribed number of lashes with either a black garrison belt, or about 10 feet of wide antennna wire wrapped in black friction tape called “the whip.” Crying or resisting would result in further and more intense punishments. I used to think that if my parents both drank that would at least explain all this weirdness. Bottles of liquor however would remain in the cabinets for years barely touched or unopened.
My escape during these times were school and work. I worked first as a delivery boy for a drugstore and then for many years as the youngest and only white counselor and teacher at St. Barnabus House; a home for orphaned, abused, and autistic children. I began teaching myself to play the guitar and started writing songs about what was going on in my life.
Another skill I learned in my adolescence was how to lie. I was ashamed and embarrassed that I was different than my Jewish middle-class neighbors. By making up stories I believed that I could hide that we were poor and on welfare, that we lived on top of a store, that we didn’t have a phone, and that my mother weighed over 400 pounds. My circumstances became all to obvious though when at school my free lunch card was handed out to me in front of all the other kids. It was also pretty evident that I didn’t know how to “act right” or behave socially. Then there were those days when I would show up at school with bruises, and hickies on my neck. I would have to invent some ridiculous story to explain them. On other occasions I would have to lie about why I didn’t have the school books my father had torn up the night before or the eyeglasses he had stomped on in a rage.
The turning point for me socially came at Erasmus Hall High School when for four years in a row I wrote, directed, and acted in a yearly musical competition called “Sing.” During my first year doing Sing I met the group of friends who I would have to this day and who would change my life forever. Among them were the now prominent black lesbian reggae recording artists Judy Casselberry and Jacqué Dupree. The three of us and a handful of other extraodinarily gifted kids became inseparable and a driving political and musical force for the next four years in school. We taught each other songs on guitar, and piano, went to concerts, got high on pot, acid and mescaline, and sang together on the subways and in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. We did everything together but have sex.
My senior year in high school I was elected Student Body President and was riding the crest of popularity. I was 19 years old. These were the times of Vietnam, The Black Panther Party, Attica, Kent State, Nina Simone, Phil Ochs, Laura Nyro and Richie Havens. My father was still up to no good. One day after a riot had broken out at school my father called the principal and told him that I had started the riot by calling in my outside black agitator friends from Bedford Stuyvesant. Fortunately by then I had enough faculty friends at school who knew what was going on in the Merbaum household. They were also aware of the time my father sued the Board of Education for a half million dollars on the basis of a story he made up that a teacher had kicked me in the groin. The case was thrown out of court and my parents were thrown into the Elmhurst pyschiatric facility for evaluation. I called my father at work and went off on him for the first time in my life. I told him that I hated him for ruining my life and for everything he had done to the family. He said if I was still there in 20 minutes when he got home he would kill me. I packed whatever I could and David Weinberg, a teacher friend of mine came and got me. I never went back. David and his wife, Susan, let me live with them before and after I went away to college.
I was accepted into Marlboro College, a small progressive rich kids’ school in Vermont. I was awarded the one scholarship they offered yearly. I studied theater and violin, and continued to play the guitar and write songs. To be continued…
David M., Coninued
David M. moved to San Francisco in 1975 and loved every aspect of the scene. He made his living as a bookkeeper/accountant. In 1978 a vicious gay bashing resulted in his losing an eye. In the spring of 1987 several of his closest friends were diagnosed with pneumocistis.
Because I had taken part in a hepatitis study conducted by the SF Health Dept. in 1979, I was able to confirm that I have been HIV+ since that time (at least). With the exception of two incidents of thrush and an occasional lymph node I miraculously stayed relatively asymtomatic. When my T-Cell count hit a new low of nine I was still not sick and I decided to find a recovery program to deal with my usually once-a-week habit of doing speed. I decided to try to stay as healthy as possible for as long as I could, hoping, of course, I could hold out until a cure or new treatment would be discovered. All my sick friends shared the common belief that a miracle drug was just around the corner. To this day we have either died or are still waiting — perhaps a little more pragmatic, definitely more cynical and angry.
My lifelong death wish seems to be constantly undermined by either a stronger will to live or a merciless higher power that just wants to kill me slowly.
On Friday February 16, 1990 I came home from work, went to my bedroom and put on some music. After a few minutes it was more than evident that something was wrong. The music irritated me and my body felt like a chain saw had been taken to my innards. I turned off the music and lay on my bed for at least an hour wondering what in the hell was going on. Was I getting sick? The phone rang, It was Bobby’s slster, Margaret, calling from a Houston suburb. Bobby was gone. We had spent Christmas Day together on the phone having one of our usual long distance marathon conversations. On New Year~s eve we spent the entire night on the phone celebrating the ringing in of the New Year in both time zones. We had talked the previous Friday and Bobby told me to go ahead and get a plane ticket to come visit. He was insistent that I wait 14 days to get an inexpensive fare. I called him that Monday to tell him I had gotten the ticket. He sounded like something was distracting him but was excited about me coming. I never saw or talked to him again.
That same week, when I got home, a doctor from San Francisco General Hospital phoned me. I had been participating in the clinical trials of a new experimental AIDS drug called DDC. In the course of my weekly examinations a very light pink spot had been detected on my right arm and had been biopsied before I left for Houston. The doctor said it was Kaposi Sarcoma and in a moment the inevitable set in. I had crossed over. I was now a person with AIDS.
In May 1990 I got bronchial pneumonia and in June pneumosistis. I gave a three month notice to my boss, Savannah Bird. She helped me financially and with my disability insurance, and threw me an extravagant retirement party. Not a day goes by when I don’t look out on the panoramic view (from this, my first apartment by myself) and give thanks to Savannah. I retired in July and worked gratis for the next six weeks training my replacement and working with a personal free weight trainer to gain weight and to get my body back in shape. Shortly after my diagnosis six of my friends, straight and gay men and women, formed a support group for me and themselves. They decided to meet without me once a month or “as needed” during crisis situations They contacted my friends in New York and Boston to set up an east coast version of the group so I could travel. They set up phone trees and figured out how to go about taking care of me and each other. Over the past year and a half they have been there consistently to talk to, to bring and cook me food, to do my banking, to drive and go in with me to my doctor, to clean up and take out the garbage, to administer IV drugs, to listen, to hold, and to help me out with any chore, project, errand, or emotional and medical support that I need. I think of how lucky I am to be at such a relatively comfortable end of the AlDS spectrum. My friends insist that luck has nothing to do with it.
It is now and has always been so hard for me to let people’s affection in. I was always scared that when I was diagnosed that I would be reduced to relying on publiC services for assistance. This would be a scenario from my childhood I promised myself I would never have happen to me as an adult. My friends have enabled me to keep my dignity and this promise. I would like very much to give them back something to keep and remember me by. Perhaps this will be my music.
In September 1990, fortified with weight gain, a terrific tan, a pumped up body, and a few good songs I headed to New York. Austin N., a former lover and friend of 20-plus years was throwing me my first-ever birthday party. I would sing. Casselberry-Dupree, and Toshi Reagon would also perform. Many of my old running buddies would be there… The doorman kept buzzing up to announce a new arrival or to relay the neighbors’ complaints and threats because of all the noise. Friends showed up from high school and we talked, cried, danced and got out the guitars to sing all the old songs. until five o’clock in the morning.
I went to Boston to spend time with Judith Casselberry. The previous year Judith had graduated from the Berklee school of music and was already gaining a reputation not only for her singing and recording but for producing. Judith talked of the importance of my recording the many songs I have written over the last 16 years not only for myself but for my community whose attitudes and changes they reflect. All we needed was a record company, a benefactor or a miracle. After several trips jumping coasts, a couple of bouts with CMV, a diagnosis of MAI and KS in my throat and lungs I had pretty much abandoned the idea of recording again. I was content in the confidence that if I left all the rights to my music to Judith she would turn other people on to the material.
Then the miracle happened. Judith arrived for a stay at my apartment in San Francisco for what I had planned to be the final, “Let’s try to figure out this recording thing” meeting. Within an hour a longtime friend of ours phoned to tell us of the availability of a recording studio in Berkley. It was owned by Paul Dresner, a straight acquaintance of mine who was familiar with my music and who agreed that the material should be heard. We called in Mimi Fox, guitarist/composer/recording artist, with whom I’d worked before. We got Michael Beck to assist engineering. It was a perfect circle. Michael has not been using drugs and alcohol for several years and currently does substance abuse counseling. When we were initially together he had also been my road manager and had been present in the Mercury recording sessions 16 years ago. It was magic. Judy and I joked about how I suddenly went from being an invalid largely bed-confined to being in the studio staying up all night. I surprised myself with this new energy and the fact that I was able to sing despite my medical limitations. In many instances we rearranged long or vocally difficult passages in the songs to accommodate my lack of breath and my higher-pitch problems.
I don’t intend to see this project finished. I do have complete faith in Judith to produce a product that would not embarrass me or her, and who knows? It might turn out really great and I’ll win some kind of posthumous award for best album by a dead but very sensitive homosexual. As far as me and this AIDS thing: I have many months ago exceeded new levels of extreme uncomfortability. The majority of my personal freedoms and lifestyle have been grossly violated. I have nurses coming to the house every day to administer IV drugs, draw blood, and to monitor my progress. I have lost count of my hospitalizations and have endured infection after infection in the in-line catheters I’ve had surgically inserted in my chest and arms. I have had six inches of infected catheter break off inside my chest at the doctor’s office. She performed immediate emergency surgery right there to remove it. I have taken prescribed drugs that have made me sicker than the illness they were supposed to treat. I have been treated for diseases I swore I would never want to live through. I have watched KS develop all over my body and have sustained a significant weight loss. My energy is minimal and my current prognosis is two to four months. I have tended to refuse treatment and invasive diagnostic procedures since my diagnosis. I have compromised my standards and negotiated my mortality. For me the appropriate seems to be to pass naturally or by my own devices. No heroics please! This attitude confounds my friends and doctors but they do try to understand. After all I have watched those closest to me fight for a just a few extra breaths or months only to succumb. No, I am not optimistic about a cure being found any time soon. I don’t trust the government. They’ve expended not enough and much too late.
A common skill among professional AIDS caregiver types is to be trained to listen commitedly and passively to their clients and to elicit feelings and emotions. I doubt that this would work well for me. When I am feeling emotional, which is usually most of the time, I either handle it privately or with a close friend. Professional AIDS caregivers would be an intrusion and a further invasion of my already compromised privacy. Crying, for me, is the act of tapping into my sadness. It is not a release. The well is too deep and ever widening.
Another caregiving stance that drives me crazy is the well meaning “You must need a hug” approach. Well, frankly I largely don’t need a hug or to be touched at all. When and if I do, I get it from someone I know and care about. What I need is the comfort of knowing that I have made a contribution, that I made people laugh, that I have loved and been loved, and that my music and memory will go on. Peace.
Add Media Note
In the July 18 Chronicle (1991) there is a prominently played story by Jerry Carroll on the chances of getting AIDS from your doctor or dentist. Carroll’s lead says that Kimberly Bergalis, the young Florida woman whose death is imminent, “will be the first to die because of a lifestyle decision previously thought risk-free — she got her teeth cleaned.” As anyone who reads People Magazine knows, Bergalis had her wisdom teeth extracted — an extremely bloody oral surgery procedure, hardly equivalent to a cleaning.
And what does Carroll mean by calling a trip to the dentist a “lifestyle decision?” For most people it’s either a medical emergency or else it’s covered by insurance. Jerry Carroll is a set-up artist who once pestered Alexander Cockburn for an interview. Cockburn relented and Carroll proposed that they meet for lunch at Campton Place, one of the fanciest restaurants in San Francisco. In the ensuing Chronicle story Carroll made a snide remark about the radical journalist eating his expensive lunch at the fancy restaurant!